REVIEW: Shazam! (Spoiler Free)

SHAZAM! … and all the troubles with DC Extended Universe including bad writing, bad acting, bad CG, bad world-building, bad adaptations of source material, bad editing and bad direction are gone.

Welcomed into the arms of the Vasquez family, the orphaned Billy Batson finds it near impossible to ‘fit in’, until a chance encounter with a wizard has him imbued with God-like abilities, triggered by saying a single magical word…

What could be considered the seventh installment in the currently deteriorating DC Extended Universe (or I guess, Worlds of DC, if we’re being technical), Shazam! would just so happen to be the surprise hit that the superhero-centric studio has been needing since 2017’s Wonder Woman. A light, fun family adventure film with a little heart and a little humour, Shazam! has managed to achieve something I was beginning to think was impossible for DC… you know, to be good. And not to run the risk of sounding like a Marvel fanboy, but for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have been kicking goals since 2008, I found it really nice to see DC finally, from long last, find their footing with Shazam!. To successfully avoid studio interference, the clashing of tones, the ambitious nature to go too big too early, misrepresentations of characters and so on and so forth, DC have seemingly relaxed to comfortably allow the talented David F. Sandberg to actually deliver a clear, distinct singular film… and, to think, all they had to do was say the magic word.

Its weird to comprehend that from their century of world-building, excessive lore and character creations in the comics, DC would turn to Aquaman and Shazam as their saving graces in a world where THE JUSTICE LEAGUE MOVIE didn’t work. Aquaman, of course, being the butt of DC jokes for years until Jason Momoa was cast in the role and James Wan made a… ‘fine’, ‘movie’, I guess… but Shazam, as a character, could arguably be considered a much obscurer, warped archival superhero for DC to pull from, especially in 2019. If you’re unaware of the history of Shazam as a character, he was originally referred to in the comics as ‘Captain Marvel’, but due to a series of legal struggles, that I am not going to bother delving too deep into (because…), he reverted to the name ‘Shazam’ and Marvel Comics kept the original title of the superhero for, guess who, Carol Danvers. So, sharing an extremely close big screen debut with Marvel’s Captain Marvel – also at a time where the MCU have proven to be untouchable – it would appear the odds were against Shazam! from the very start. Yet, surfacing from a cinematic universe of seemingly no real hope, Shazam! has managed to be DC’s best thing since slice bread (the slice bread here being a metaphor for Wonder Woman).

To quickly judge Shazam! against the rest of DC’s current crop of blockbusters (since the ranking process would appear to be a necessary requirement now when judging these franchise flicks), I could comfortably tell you right now that Shazam! bunny hopped over every single DCEU film to score second place after Wonder Woman. Unlike the Frankenstein-esque studio f*ck ups that were Suicide Squad and Justice League, Shazam! offered a singular unique vision. Unlike the dark, brooding unpleasantness of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Shazam! understood how to engage with its source material. Unlike the messy overload that was Aquaman, Shazam! harnessed a more personal character story before attempting to go too over-the-top with its world-building. Shazam! was most concerned about telling a faithful, heartfelt story within the bounds of a superhero extravaganza… and that’s something to truly be applauded for.
Shazam! was first and foremost a rather personal story that, honestly, hit me rather hard. I’m not ashamed to say that there was actually a moment in Shazam! that truthfully made me tear up a bit – not just inside, but a literal and visible cry. At first, I didn’t even realise I was crying until I suddenly thought “oh sh*t, I’m in a reasonably full cinema crying in a superhero movie”. And let me tell you, I haven’t cried in a comic book flick since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (and that was after about three viewings of that film at least), so to have Shazam! actually hit me in such a way… I couldn’t quite comprehend how the hell it happened. But just for you lovely readers, I shall attempt to recall, through the lovely narrative and theme work of Shazam! (without spoilers), how I came to shed a little tear during the new DC endeavour.

Straight off the bat, it was easy to immediately relate Shazam! to the theme of family as, in fact, I would definitively call Sandberg’s blockbuster a film about family before being a film about superheroes. Most importantly though, Shazam! was a movie about family from the perspective of the children. Take Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for example that explored the theme of family strongly through the guise of adults and the trials and tribulations of parenthood; Shazam!, meanwhile, detailed the opposite side of the coin. With the film’s constant setting of Christmas (even during all the flashbacks), the sense of togetherness and warmth brought from the holiday coincided with Shazam!‘s concentration on the importance of family and why love and affection is so pivotal to a child coming of age. Family represents everything for a child’s growth, whether believing in a world of love and hope or, simply, believing in a system (a community) that shall always be there for you to fall back on. Usually, the best time to see the strength of a family, or community, is during Christmas… which is a period of the year that can also, surprisingly, show the complete opposite of love and warmth, in retrospect, as well.

Christmas, at least in American pop culture, can evoke more than just the warm and cosy embrace of a family, but also the cold loneliness brought on by purely the season’s climate. Christmas is a time of the year (not in Australia, buddy, I’ll tell you that bloody much) that is shrouded in snow and sits below average temperatures – freezing and unfeeling. And its in this climate a human being – a child – can easily be subject to isolation. Not every kid has a family or, even, a family who cares enough to celebrate a joyous occasion like Christmas, and so what Shazam! came down to, thematically, was the exploration of the concept of loneliness as the film’s central antagonist.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Doctor Sivana was the evil, snarly, centrepiece bad guy in Shazam! but he wasn’t exactly the arch-nemesis of the story. Instead, Sivana was more-or-less the vessel for Shazam!‘s true villain – the more metaphorical antagonist, the hero, Billy Batson, was forced to face over the course of the runtime: loneliness. Being a rather troubled orphan, neglectful of homes and the idea of love, it was loneliness for which Batson was forced to overcome over the course of Shazam!; the ability to open up and let in those who care was the greater conflict found in the development of Shazam!‘s central protagonist. And with Sivana as a complete mirror to whom Batson would become if he choose to continue to isolate himself at such a young age, the stakes came in whether Batson was willing to allow others to enter his life and change it for the better or revert to a life of anger, regret and vengeance. If anything, Shazam! was a classic coming-of-age film incorporating elements of a family drama, disguised as a superhero blockbuster… and you know how I know that? Becuase Shazam! was a film about literally and figuratively growing up.

Not only gaining the appearance of a grown man, Batson was forced to undertake a journey in Shazam! of earning the morals and wisdom of an adult. With illusions to Tom Hanks’ Big, its difficult not to associate Shazam! with the bittersweet departure of a child from their comfort zone into, for lack of better term, a brand new world. And how better to show that transition than from within the bounds of a superhero film? When it comes down to it, what do you think superheroes are meant to symbolise to children? Role models. And, in a way, Shazam! leans off that very concept – in a world polluted with superheroes, what even makes the garden-variety “super-man” a role model? With constant imagery and hints to characters like Superman, Batman, Flash and Aquaman, Shazam! acknowledged how superheroes (whether fictional or real) don’t just save us from the bad guys but also teach us how to grow into our best selves. And a superhero doesn’t always have to be the charming, red caped Clark Kent, but could, quite simply, just be your brother, or your parents, or the people who you allow into your heart to, hence, help you embrace who you truly are… that’s not just being a superhero – that’s being family.

So yeah… that’s why I guess I teared up in Shazam!: a complete build-up to a certain few moments that defined how true family can effect an individual. Shazam! saw Billy Batson’s journey of discovering why the word “hero” means a lot more than the word “super”.

shazam-2019-movie-review-1280x720
(Warner Bros. Pictures 2019)

Otherwise though, Shazam! was still what you would call a rather super film from spectacle alone. Sandberg’s direction felt extremely separate from the work of previous DC directors, harnessing a fresh style to shoot the youthful superhero’s misadventures. I still stand by my belief that horror filmmakers make for the best blockbuster directors, being that those who specialise in horror are never afraid to go a little weird and spooky, never shying away from darker moments to add some honest thrill to the action as Sandberg was no different. Other than featuring some rather Goosebumps-type imagery, Shazam!, in more of its magical based scenes, also felt very reminiscent of the Chris Columbus helmed Harry Potter films; a baseline introduction to the world of magic like The Philosopher’s Stone but also a dark monster flick at times like The Chamber of Secrets. Even feeling slightly Spielbergian at times, with twitches of 80s coming-of-age sci-fi cinema, Shazam! really felt like it was attempting to pull from multiple sources to make its thrilling but simultaneously comedic superhero adventure work. Although, I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of these “sources” Shazam! used did not entirely function all too well when properly dissected.

For years now, DC have attempted to mimic Marvel in the way they make their movies, firstly, through the shared universe scheme, but also through world-building, references and most of all, tone. Concerning Shazam! I honestly believed that DC had found their perfect replication of a Marvel movie… which is neither good nor bad.

It’s important, I feel, that every film occupies its own space with its own voice. The Marvel brand is the Marvel brand for a reason, and although that works for them I don’t think their formula should necessarily be up for the taking for any other studio. The quippy, light adventurous tone associated with the Marvel banner has been an element other Hollywood studios for the last decade have attempted to copycat. DC have, in the past, been shown to try and force Marvel branded entertainment down the throats of movies like Suicide Squad and Justice League to two very poor results. Yet, here we are, at DC’s supposed highpoint and without even trying Shazam! has seemingly managed to become a success based off a startling similarity in tone and style to Marvel.

Beyond all those historical resemblances between DC’s Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Marvel, as much as I enjoyed Shazam! I could not help but recognise how closely the new DC film seemingly toed the line of being a Marvel product. Not only recruiting Zachary Levi for the lead role, who portrayed Fandral in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: RagnarokShazam!‘s similarities to Marvel even boiled down to the film’s end credits title roll featuring a similar sketch animation to Spider-Man: Homecoming against the music of The Ramones. As much as I liked Shazam! I could not help but think “hey… DC found a way to make a Marvel film without anyone noticing”. Now, I don’t particularly think that what DC have done here is a bad thing, as it would seem that the Marvel stylings fit the character of Shazam perfectly, but I hope that what this film doesn’t teach DC, or any other studio, that Marvel can be copied and therefore should be copied. If anything, what I would hope from a Shazam! sequel would be a departure from just using what could be described as a “Marvel cheat sheet” and take more risks in obscureness and flavour. Sure it may have worked this time, but that’s only because this certain Shazam story needed it to work. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Shazam! but I also like DC, especially when DC are being DC and not Marvel.

To touch on a few other negatives before recalling back to my many positives, Shazam! had serious structural and pacing trouble. After Batson gained his powers, the second act of Shazam! pretty much became a series of goofs and gags which were fun initially but eventually begun to override the story. When the movie needed it, the central narrative would reappear abruptly with no concrete build up or real defining event. Some things in Shazam! would just happen because… they had to. Also, the final action sequence drew on for what felt like ages; a never-ending juggling act of a bit of fighting, a bit of humour and a bit of family stuff that never entirely gelled, standing out as the movie’s weakest element.

Moving back into the positives though, Shazam! was so damn comic accurate that it was frightening at times. From visuals to castings, there were bits and pieces of Shazam! I felt were lifted straight from the comic pages. On the subject of casting, damn did Shazam! have some impressive talent before the camera. Zachary Levi was hilariously strong and tuned in on the might and power of the lead hero. Asher Angel, as Levi’s counterpart, delivered some raw heart to the film’s more human moments. Jack Dylan Grazer as Batson’s foster brother, Freddy Freeman, may have been the standout of the entire piece whilst Mark Strong’s villainous Sivana… lets say it was way better than Sinestro 2011. The other siblings meanwhile, made up of Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen and Jovan Armand, all performed equally really well alongside one another, despite some of their character arcs being poorly written with unsatisfying conclusions.

Still, though, its difficult not to like Shazam! based purely off the film’s spirit. Like a power surge of raw, untapped energy, DC’s new flick really sold itself on its lightness, its darkness and, straight up, good vibes. In the hopes that DC have a brighter and clearer future ahead of them, it would seem all they have to do from now one is say that one single magic word and all shall be at peace in the studio once more… yes, that one word… the word of “KAZAAM”.

Wait, oh yeah, that’s the Shaquille O’Neal one – oh well, my mistake.

Shazam! is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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